White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

How Much Do I Need to Know?

“How far is too far?” Growing up in conservative evangelicalism, that question was common in youth group. Of course, we were talking about physical intimacy. When everything’s reducible to making a rule or breaking a rule, it’s important to know when you’ve “crossed the line.” I’m not downplaying the importance of guiding young people through the mysterious era of puberty—and even in suggesting wise guidelines where there is no clear chapter and verse. But when “How far can I go?” is the main question, we’ve already lost too much. It suggests that character has not been formed by life in a particular community—especially home and the church—when people just want you to net it out for them like that. Usually we ask that question when we’re just about to dive in. We just want to know when to push the eject button.

A similar phenomenon happens when people ask, “How much do you need to know to be saved?” It’s like asking, “How ignorant can I be?” At one end, there’s the official Roman Catholic answer: assent to everything the church teaches. It’s called implicit faith because you can’t possibly know for yourself everything that the church teaches. The Geneva reformer John Calvin described this view as ignorance disguised as humility. At the other end, there is that line from evangelist D. L. Moody: “I can write the gospel on a dime.” How much do you need to know? Enough to lead someone to Christ in an elevator.

We recall the question of the rich young ruler. Assuming that he had so far done everything he knew to do, he asked Jesus, “What’s the one thing I have to do to be saved?” Jesus pressed him to face the full brunt of the law, showing him that he had not even begun to fulfill the duty of loving God with total devotion and loving his neighbor as himself. As confessional “Reformation” folks, we get that. However, we are so good at works-righteousness that we merely shift the bar of merit from things we do to things we know.

According to Scripture, the object of our faith is neither our actions or our knowledge, but the person of Jesus Christ. Of course, trusting a person involves knowledge and assent, but we’re saved by Christ, not by doctrines. The purpose of the doctrine is to direct us to the right person and to keep us looking to him until that day when faith yields to sight.

In his Great Commission, Jesus called his disciples to go to the whole world preaching the gospel, baptizing, and teaching them to observe everything he had delivered. He mentions things in a certain order: faith comes by hearing the preached gospel, converts are baptized along with their children (you knew I had to say that), and then is set for a whole life of learning everything. The “learning everything” part of it is not the condition for salvation, but the wonderful privilege of unpacking the gifts we’ve been given for the rest of our life. Faith is not mere assent to truths, much less blind submission. It’s trust in Christ. To trust in someone, you have to know something about them and have some confidence that they can do what they promise. However, faith is not saving as a virtue in itself, but because it embraces Christ who is our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. A weak faith clings to a strong Savior.

Our faith in people rises or falls with the reliability of their word. We lose our faith in a friend who promises something over and over again but never comes through. We stop believing what he or she says. A broken marriage vow cuts the cord of trust. In many cases it can be repaired, but it doesn’t come quickly. Instead of focusing on our faith, we should focus on the Triune God as the promise-maker and promise-fulfiller. Look at the history of God’s promises and his track-record in delivering. That’s what the prophets do when they contrast the reliability of Yahweh with the breathless idols. Look especially to the one in whom all of these promises reach their goal: Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return in glory at the end of the age. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20).

So we can err in either direction.

The first error is to assume that we only need to know the bare minimum that is necessary for salvation. There are too many exhortations in Scripture to go on to maturity, to grow up into Christ through the knowledge of his transforming word, and so forth. Discipleship is first and foremost a humble eagerness to hear every word that comes from the mouth of our Lord. However untaught and even confused we have been, we are called to grow up by instruction and participation in God’s means of grace. How much do we need to know? Everything.

The second error is to assume that we need to know everything correctly in order to be saved. Who among us can claim that without delusional pride? According to the Great Commission, unbelievers hear the gospel, believe, and are baptized. Then they go on to maturity. If it’s unbiblical to require people to yield blind assent (implicit faith) in everything the church teaches, it’s also unscriptural to require them to have explicit knowledge of and assent to everything Scripture teaches. Indeed, there is no expectation in Scripture that one knows explicitly even everything that is important.

Reacting against the first error, many freshly-minted reformers veer toward the second. We call it the “cage phase,” when those who’ve just discovered the doctrines of grace wonder if they were truly believers before—and question the status of everyone else who remains under the pall of ignorance. After all, Arminians believe in free will and deny God’s electing grace. They believe that people can lose their salvation if they don’t cooperate with God’s grace. How could they possibly be true believers? Aren’t they trusting partly in themselves and partly in Christ? Ironically, we end up advocating salvation by works just as surely as our worst fears concerning others. We’ve just shifted the basis from moral to doctrinal correctness. In my own cage phase I wondered if I was even a believer experiencing the “Romans revolution.” Looking back on it now, I can see how God used those early years at home and in church as crucial for developing a love for and basic knowledge of God’s Word through which God led me to the doctrines of grace. With every growth spurt, I marvel at my spiritual immaturity that, at the time, seemed like quite an advance on the previous stage. Shouldn’t that lead me to a little humility about where I am now?

How much did those folks know in order to be converted in Acts 2? God has fulfilled all of his promises to Israel in Jesus Christ, specifically in his death and resurrection. “What must we do to be saved?”, they asked. Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Ac 2:38). A drowning person doesn’t need to know a lot about the rescuer in order to place his or her confidence in that person.

Question 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” Answer: “Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are [Rom 3:9-10; 1 Jn 1:10]; second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery [Jn 17:3; Ac 4:12; 10:43]; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance [Mat 5:16; Rom 6:13; Eph 5:8-10; 2 Tim 2:15; 1 pet 2:9-10].” Each of these is simple enough to know in order to cling to Christ and yet deep enough to swim in throughout one’s life without touching bottom.

Trusting in a person, based on certain promises this person has made, can coexist with confusion and ignorance. One may trust in the Triune God known in Christ as he is clothed in the gospel without being able to pass a doctrinal exam. At the same time, we go on to maturity, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Savior, because we want to understand the richness, depth, and vastness of our inheritance in Christ. Faith is constantly threatened by doubts, anxieties, and circumstances; it needs to be fed regularly by God’s Word, grounded in his gospel and guided by his law. A knowledge of the gospel that you can write on a dime may direct you to Christ, but it will hardly sustain you during the crises of life. And sooner or later, it will be taken for granted like the alphabet—perhaps even forgotten.

Yes, ignorance and perhaps confusion, but what about outright denial: heresy? I’ll take up that one in the next post.

WHI-1138 | For God so Loved the World

In John chapter 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” What does this verse mean, and how has it been misunderstood in our day? What is the meaning of John 3:16, and how does it relate to our understanding of both salvation and condemnation? Why do some respond positively to the gospel while others reject the good news? The hosts will discuss these questions and more in their continuing survey of the Gospel of John.

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Biblical Conversion
Kim Riddlebarger
Who Saves Whom?
Michael Horton

MUSIC SELECTION

Matthew Smith

PROGRAM AUDIO


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RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Gospel of John
Herman Ridderbos

RECOMMENDED AUDIO

Modern Reformation Conversations – The Inventions of Rome (Part Two)

In this second half of our conversation with Dr. Godfrey, we learn Rome’s understanding of tradition, the ambiguity of patriarchal-sacramental language, and just how Rome dances the Tiber Two-Step.

Enjoy!

Pilgrim Theology Now Available!!

The White Horse Inn store is now ready to ship copies of Michael Horton’s newest book Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctines for Christian Disciples. Before you head off to Amazon, know that they aren’t going to ship until February 5. Oh, and there is one other thing, only the WHI store will send you the book signed by Dr. Horton!

Get your copy today!

The 2011 award-winning publication The Christian Faith garnered wide praise as a thorough, well-informed treatment of the philosophical foundations of Christian theology, the classical elements of systematic theology, and exegesis of relevant biblical texts. Pilgrim Theology distills the distinctive benefits of this approach into a more accessible introduction designed for classroom and group study.

In this book, Michael Horton guides readers through a preliminary exploration of Christian theology in “a Reformed key.” Horton reviews the biblical passages that give rise to a particular doctrine in addition to surveying past and present interpretations. Also included are sidebars showing the key distinctions readers need to grasp on a particular subject, helpful charts and tables illuminating exegetical and historical topics, and questions at the end of each chapter for individual, classroom, and small group reflection.

Pilgrim Theology will help undergraduate students of theology and educated laypersons gain an understanding of the Christian tradition’s biblical and historical foundations.

WHI-1137 | Behold the Lamb of God

Who is Jesus, and what was his ultimate mission? Some today say that he was a kind of philosopher or moral reformer who teaches us all to share our toys and behave on the playground of life. But these views presuppose that the human predicament is that we simply need a little advice or enlightenment, and not something drastic like eternal redemption from sin, death, and hell. On this edition of White Horse Inn the hosts will continue to unpack the first two chapters of John’s gospel and will point out the significance of Christ’s role as the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

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Saved from God
Michael Horton

MUSIC SELECTION

Zac Hicks

PROGRAM AUDIO


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The Atonement
Leon Morris
The Gospel of John
Craig Keener

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Les Mis and the Limits of “Redemptive” Film

It’s been out for a while, but depending on how things go at the Oscars on February 24, Les Mis may be around for a while.  We have a White Horse Inn interview on the movie here and a blog review here.  But a long-time contributor (former editor) and pastor/professor Brian Lee has a slightly different take on the film.  In keeping with our purpose of provoking good conversations, we’re delighted that Brian wrote this for our blog.

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Almost a month has passed now since a new generation of audiences have experienced the musical production of Les Miserables on the big screen. I was among those who had long heard of the redemptive power of Victor Hugo’s story, yet had never seen or read the story. Going in, I was primed to be blown away by a lifetime of sermon illustrations about silver candlesticks.

And I was indeed blown away. The ample analogies of the Law and Grace have been ably catalogued elsewhere, including in the excellent White Horse Inn discussion. Being a good Calvinist, the story already had me at its portrayal of slavery and bondage… yes, the waterworks began in the opening number. But the gracious gift of the aforementioned candlesticks, offered to the ungrateful rebel in the place of a guilty verdict, packs a big punch. The gifted candlesticks travel with Valjean through the film; a life is transformed; grace resonates through the ages. The gift is even Christological, given by a representative of Christ and premised upon his passion and blood. The Law in Javert hounds. There are echoes of the substitutionary atonement, and the recurring question whether Valjean will identify with the Old Man, the criminal, or the New.

And yet, by the closing song I was nagged by the impression that much of what had been offered me by the one hand of grace had been taken back by the other. What really surprised me in the film (and this is not a plot spoiler), was the degree to which the themes of law and grace echoed equally through the personal transformation of Valjean and the political transformation of the Paris revolutionaries. (The political background of this conflation has previously been discussed on this blog).

As much as I was emotionally drawn into the plot of personal redemption, I was somewhat surprised by this confusion of the heavenly kingdom of grace with earthly utopia. When I heard, for instance, the orphan sing of a castle on a cloud: I know a place where no one’s lost, I know a place where no one cries, crying at all is not allowed, not in my castle on a cloud… Well, I’m thinking of the Heavenly Zion, Jerusalem above, where every tear is wiped away. But in the finale the chorus sings on the barricades in Paris:

For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies… They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord… The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward. Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?

The heavenly city is an earthly Utopia. The transforming power of grace is an entirely immanent one. The sacrifice of fallen comrades in revolutionary battle is the transforming inspiration of grace that will ultimately overthrow the oppressors of the wretched, the law that demands its pound of flesh.

It was like hearing a solid Law-Gospel sermon that surprisingly closes by shifting the category back to guilt, leaving you with Law-Gospel-Law and asking, “What have you done for Jesus lately?”

Walking out of the theater, somewhat disappointed after all the build up, I wondered if I was picking nits. C’mon, man! It’s not a sermon, it’s a movie. Give your inner systematic theologian a break. There’s no such thing as a perfect analogy.

But the nagging sense continued, and I couldn’t help but believe that even the brilliant gospel images of Les Mis are ultimately a case of truth in the service of a lie. Hugo uses the emotional power of Valjean’s story to drive home a political message. There is a certain degree of manipulation involved, made worse because it runs roughshod over biblical truth.

Ultimately, the political confusion at the end of the film led me to revisit the personal story of grace in Valjean’s life, which strikes a few troubling notes. The biggest warning sign here is that Valjean is still haunted by his past at the closing of the film. Am I forgiven now? Valjean asks in his closing scene.

Perhaps this is just the lingering doubt of a troubled soul, but there is a lurking sense in which the transforming power of the story’s gracious act is more driven by guilt, than gratitude. Valjean is ever a man on the run, hunted by the Law. The Law is never satisfied, but eluded, and deceived.

Grace in Les Mis is imperfect, because there is no substitute, no one to bear Javert’s punishment on Valjean’s behalf. Valjean’s only hope of deliverance is by his transformation, and his own acts of kindness. In fact, I think it is safe to say that Hugo portrays the Law more powerfully, and more accurately, than the Gospel — at least the Hugo of the musical, I haven’t read the book. At the end of the day, there is no reconciling of grace and justice in Les Mis, and to the extent that Javert’s law grasps and grapples with Valjean’s grace, it is led to a place of utter despair. This insatiable force of the Law, it’s inability to take anything but it’s full pound of flesh, is essentially Roman Catholic in its understanding, which is not surprising given Hugo’s french context.

We tend today to think of images, and especially moving images, as a more effective medium of communication than mere words. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But as T. David Gordon points out, there are certain things that pictures can’t convey, like the gospel of justification through imputation by faith alone. This is why, in part, Paul tells us that “Faith comes from hearing.” While moving images may tug our emotions far more effectively, they lack the precision and clarity to convey saving words, the legal declaration of our covenant-making — not image making — God. Les Mis shows how emotionalism can miss the mark, and how any merely human story of redemption will tend to miss the mark.

This is not to say that the film is not great art. If you haven’t seen the film, take this criticism as an endorsement. But enjoy the film for what it is… a movie, a story. While it is natural for Christians to get excited about Gospel imagery in popular culture — and Les Mis has it in spades — we need to be aware of the limits of “redemptive” film, and preserve the category of entertainment. Unfortunately, much of the mania for redemptive cultural efforts (see this list of the Top Ten “Most Redeeming Films of 2012”), broadens the Christian concept of redemption to the point of which it is practically useless.

Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington, DC

Modern Reformation Conversations – The Inventions of Rome

This month, we sat down with Dr. W. R. Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary California and Teaching Fellow at Ligonier Ministries to talk about the ancient church, Roman supremacy, and the changing winds of Trent and Vatican II.

WHI-1136 | An Introduction to The Gospel of John

It’s probably the most famous book in the Bible. John’s gospel is portion of Scripture we often recommend first to new Christians, and it’s led more people to Jesus than just about any other document. But even though it so plainly sets forth Christ to the beginning reader of Scripture, its treasures can’t be exhausted throughout the course of any person’s life. For the next few months the hosts will be mining the riches from this amazing text, and through this study we hope to deepen your understanding of, and love for, the person and work of Jesus Christ.

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Immanuel: God With Us
Michael Horton
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Zac Hicks

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John
R. C. Sproul
Gospel of John
F.F. Bruce

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The Messiah
WHI-1078

Is Science Necessarily Anti-religious?

As everybody knows, well-known biologist Richard Dawkins moonlights as a polemicist against religion. Yet recently a leading physicist described Mr. Dawkins as a “fundamentalist.” The physicist is Peter Higgs (as in Higgs Boson particle). Higgs is expected to win the Nobel prize after this summer’s discovery in Geneva supported his theory about how particles attain their mass.

Although Higgs says he is not a religious believer himself, he chalks it up to his secular upbringing. Science and religion are not incompatible, Higgs asserts, but religion needs to rethink some of its arguments in the light of contemporary science.

Recently I also had the opportunity to ask Harvard astrophysicist Owen Gingerich about the religious implications—if any—of the Higgs Boson, which has been called “The God Particle.” He was kind enough to write up the following insights exclusively for our White Horse Inn readers.

The recent discovery of evidence for the elusive and short-lived Higgs boson stirred up a great deal of short-lived press coverage. My friends knew somehow that it was Very Important, without knowing quite why, nor why it was referred to as “the God particle.” Were there deep religious connotations in this discovery?

The discovery was long ago predicted (if everything was all right with the so-called “standard model” of nuclear particles), and thus long awaited. Already two decades ago Leon Lederman, sometime director of the Fermi Lab and Nobel laureate in physics, was frustrated by the difficulty of finding the particle, and he wanted to vent his frustration by titling his forthcoming book on the elusive boson The goddamned particle. This American idiom expressed his feeling perfectly and without religious connotations, but his publisher vetoed the idea, settling simply for The God Particle. Thus, unwittingly, the pot was stirred unnecessarily for religious connections.

A similar situation has repeated over and over in seeking for the larger context of scientific findings. A particularly interesting case occurred following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Outcries that the book was antireligious brought a thoughtful response from the American botanist Asa Gray, who was a staunch Presbyterian but a serious supporter of Darwin’s evolutionary views. Gray ended his review by arguing that whereas a reader could use Darwin’s theory in support of an atheistic view of Nature, one could use any scientific theory in that way. Darwin, Gray wrote: “merely takes up a particular, proximate cause, or set of such causes, from which, it is argued, the present diversity of species has or may have contingently resulted. The author does not say necessarily resulted.”

Thus it is that cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, already known for his outspoken atheistic stance, captures the opportunity to call the Higgs boson “The Godless Particle.” It is no surprise to learn that his prior views find a confirming place for the particle in his philosophy. Likewise readers of my book, God’s Universe, will not be astonished to discover that I consider the Higg’s boson simply to be one of countless numbers God’s particles that make up the material universe. There are discoveries awaiting to be made that will surely give rise to thoughtful discussions with far more interesting philosophical issues than the discovery of evidence for the Higg’s particle. To name just one, the on-going Kepler mission, which continuously monitors approximately 150,000 stars for the brief dimming that results when a planet passes in front of one of them, has already found a couple thousand so-called exoplanets. Some of these will surely be earthlike, in the sense of being rocky bodies in just the right temperature range for liquid water and therefore possible environments for life. If we eventually find many of them, but with no evidence for life, this may support an argument for the rarity of life in the universe. On the other hand, if hints of primitive life are found, it will verify that the universe is designed to be congenial for life. Of course Lawrence Krauss will argue that the formation of life is automatic and therefore no big deal.

As we never tire of saying around here, God works through means. The Reformers emphasized that God’s glory isn’t lessened by the layers of creaturely means he uses to get something done. On the contrary, it shows just how involved God is at every level, in every event, even to bring good out of evil. Just as the Triune God works in saving grace through the ordinary means of preaching, baptism and the Supper, his common grace is evident in the layers of natural processes that his wisdom, goodness and love direct. In nature and in grace, everything holds together in Christ (Col 1:17). He is eternal Son who became flesh for us and for our salvation. Even in this game-changing event, his miraculous conception was complemented by a natural gestation and birth, like that of any other baby.

In God’s economy, extraordinary means—miracles—play nicely alongside ordinary means. Sometimes God works directly and immediately, but most of the time he works through secondary causes. Even in Genesis 1 and 2, along with the direct fiat that creates “from nothing” (ex nihilo)—”‘Let there be x.’ And there was x.”—are interlaced descriptions of a more ordinary procedure: “‘Let the earth bring forth x.’ And the earth brought forth x.” This is not a recent theory to accommodate contemporary science; it’s one of many long-standing contributions of our older theologians to contemporary conversations. This distinction has always been helpful in better days, when science and faith were on friendlier terms.

The science-religion conversation is complex, far more so than religious and anti-religious fundamentalists imagine. Yet it may be that our greatest weakness in this discussion is not traditional arguments from the past, but the fact that we have largely forgotten what they were.

WHI-1135 | That’s Your Interpretation!

How do we respond to someone who dismisses your understanding of Scripture by saying, “Well, that’s your interpretation”? What should we say when a Bible study leader asks the question, “What does this verse mean to you?” How do we know if we are interpreting the Bible correctly? Is there even such a thing as a “correct” interpretation? The hosts will address these questions and more on this edition of White Horse Inn (originally broadcast Mar 25, 2007).

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MUSIC SELECTION

Dave Hlebo

PROGRAM AUDIO


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